Science and faith

Following on from my previous post about the need to correctly set the parameters for both science and faith if we’re to understand their inter-relationship correctly here is a transcript of my sermon on a very closely related theme …

You can upload a copy of my PPT here which will, I trust make more sense of the slide annotation shown throughout the notes :

SLIDE 1  In 2005 Time magazine carried an essay by the Nobel prize winning physicist Eric Cornell in which he posed this question; Why is the sky blue ? Cornell went on to offer two brief answers to his own question, firstly he said, ‘… the sky is blue because of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering …’, and he continued by saying, ‘… secondly, the sky is blue because that is the colour God wants it to be …’. Cornell wrote further that, as an expert in the field of optical phenomena, he was well qualified to speak about his first answer. However, he said, the second answer, whilst having been voiced for thousands of years was not in the least undermined by the advances in scientific understanding that gave rise to the first answer. SLIDE 2  There is, Cornell went on to say, ‘… a legitimacy in thinking of the wavelength dependence of rays scattering as the method by which God chooses to implement His colour scheme …’.

I wanted to start our consideration for this morning with Cornell’s comments because they follow on from the topic you thought about last week about science and theology coexisting together as complimentary sources of information rather than, as is so often assumed, opposing viewpoints that stand poles apart and by their nature, consistently at odds with each other.

Quite clearly this morning we run the risk of having some overlap from the topic last week since there’s no way we can think about the creation of the universe without touching on matters of science; but I trust that what I say this morning will add to what was said last week rather than merely repeating it.

SLIDE 3  So, let’s spend some time looking at our question for this morning. Is the universe just an accident ? or to put it another way, Why does anything exist and not nothing ? Whilst these might be short questions they doesn’t have short answers since these are questions that impact upon other huge questions such as Why are we here ? and, Does my life has any meaning ? So, whilst we can’t hope to look at every avenue of thinking that feeds into a complete answer, even if that could be done, I trust that we will together be encouraged to think more about the impact of such questions upon our personal faith and also the kind of thinking required in attempting to formulate answers to this and similar big questions.

SLIDE 4  So where do we start ? Well, the most obvious place is to start at the beginning, and the beginning of the story is the opening verse of the book of Genesis. Whilst we don’t have time to consider the chapter in any depth it’s worthwhile noting that Ch.1 acts as the prologue to the book, and in its turn, the book of Genesis acts as the prologue to the entire Bible since it’s the book of beginnings. And just as an operatic overture introduces all of the themes of an opera to the expectant audience, so it is that Genesis introduces the reader to the great themes that will dominate scripture. It is in Genesis that we learn of the creation of the world and of humankind’s rebellion against God’s rule. It is here that we learn of God’s decision to restore his creation back into relationship with Himself and we learn of God’s intention to do that through His chosen people and ultimately through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ; through his death and resurrection. In short, Genesis sets the scene for the unfolding story of salvation, which is the story of the rest of scripture.

So let’s read a few verses from Genesis Ch.1, word that I’m sure you will be very familiar with   SLIDE 5

… in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light …’ (Genesis Ch.1 vs.1-3)

Yet in starting at the beginning we’re immediately aware that Ch.1 of Genesis is not a straightforward piece of writing and, in part, that’s because it’s written in a style that we aren’t overly familiar with, since the writing is much closer to poetry than it is to prose.

Now that’s not to say that what the writer wishes to communicate to us is in anyway less true than say the narrative historical writing style of Luke as he writes his gospel, but we have to be mindful that literal reading of poetry can at times become nonsensical. In the Psalms for instance we find David talking about God’s creative sovereignty. SLIDE 6  In Psalm 8 the Psalmist writes, ‘… when I consider the works of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them ? …’. And when we read that, of course we know that God isn’t flesh and blood like we are and so He doesn’t have fingers; so we don’t read this in a literal way. But, and this is important, in no way does that fact take anything away from the truth that is being spoken about. The Psalmist wants us to know that God is personally and intimately involved, not only in the creation of the world, but also, he writes, God has a desire to draw us into relationship with Him. And in many ways that truth is better presented for us in this poetic style because the use of language and imagery engages us on a very personal level.

It’s also worth noting in passing something about the context in which these opening words of scripture were written. Most Biblical scholars seem to be in agreement that Genesis was written some 1500 years BC, at a time when there was a plethora of competing views about creation circulating around the pagan lands that bordered the land of Israel. All of the major nations of the time had their own myths and stories, and Genesis was written as a direct challenge to the myths of the Babylonians, the Canaanites, the Egyptians and the Assyrians.

It’s true that some of these myths have certain similarities with the poetic account of Genesis Ch.1 but in reality they are fundamentally different as we will see. One of the many creation stories tells of a war between rival deities that resulted in the victorious god slitting open the stomach of a god he has defeated, and from the divided contents of the stomach, that god created the heavens and the earth. In another creation story a band of lesser gods go on strike and the higher gods are forced to create humankind in order to do the manual labour that the lesser gods are now refusing to do. But here in Genesis we note a fundamental difference from these kinds of stories since in the Biblical account there is no hint of conflict or warfare, no disagreements between competing deities, and neither is there any confusion regarding the identity of the creator, since it is God. And it’s the God who is eternally present because He was, ‘… in the beginning …’. So God purposed creation, He chose to create the universe, and more than that, He was overjoyed with what He had made; we see that repeated through Ch.1 of Genesis. The poet speaks of God as an artist, standing back, as it were, to view his masterpiece and commenting upon it. The Hebrew word for good used here, is elsewhere translated as beautiful, such is God’s work of creative activity.

SLIDE 8  But there’s more, because we are told that the pinnacle of God’s creation is humankind, you and I. And it’s because of the opening chapters of Genesis that we accord dignity and value to one another. If this opening chapter of the Bible is mere myth or poetic fiction then, it ought to follow, that there is no sanctity to human life since we are no more sacred than a worm; but of course no-one believes that. But where does that belief come from ? Well, put simply, It’s derived from the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, whether we acknowledge it or not. God designed a world for us to live in. He purposed creation and brought it into being as a direct act of his free will.

SLIDE 9  So how ought we to view God’s interaction with creation ? Well, the early part of Genesis tells us that pantheism is wrong, that idea that God is part of the created world and exists in everything; but that’s not what scripture tells us, since God is eternal and outside of time. And neither is deism right, that idea that God is unmoved by and distanced from His creation, the thinking that, whilst God might possibly have set everything in motion, He now has no further interest. SLIDE 10  But neither of these points of view stand up against the revelation of scripture, because here, we meet an Almighty and personal Creator God. A God who is both transcendent, that is He is different in substance from created things, and who is also imminent, that is, He is involved in His creation. And more than that, amazingly, God desires to share in a relationship with you and I.

And it’s when we turn to the NT that we discover more about what that means and the way by which God chooses to become intimately involved in His creation; and it’s through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first few verses of John’s gospel are strikingly similar to the beginning of Genesis, and we’re reminded that God’s response to humankind’s rebellion is not to distance Himself from us, but rather, it’s the reverse, since He draws closer to us. And the imagery of light is important. In both accounts, whether that of creation or the unfolding story of God’s re-creation; His work of salvation and restoration through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, both are described as bringing light and life.

SLIDE 11  Let’s just read those verses from John Ch.1 in order to see the similarities. John writes, ‘… In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it …’  (John Ch.1 vs.1-5)

SLIDE 12  And whilst we may have differing views as to the interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, it’s fundamentally important that we notice the fact of God’s creation over and above any consideration as to the manner of God’s creation. Since, in reality, Genesis wasn’t written to answer the how question but only the why question since Genesis Ch.1 introduces us to the personal Creator God who despite His transcendence is knowable – a fact we see most clearly in the person and the work of Jesus Christ God’s Son.

That said, it’s interesting that the current pervading scientific position of cosmologists purports that the creation of the universe happened at a moment of unimaginable power some 15 billion years ago, an event that saw the creation of all matter and elements out of nothing; the so-called Big Bang. I mention that purely because it’s a scientific theory, that at least at first glance, seems more in tune with scripture than any scientific theory held sacred by previous generations of cosmologists. Is it very difficult for us as Christians to see God in the Big Bang ? Interestingly many scientists are re-evaluating their positions in the light of what they have discovered because the implications are huge.

SLIDE 13  Francis Collins, who until recently was the head of the Human Genome Project wrote this in 2007, ‘… I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship …’

Yet it’s the story of the one time atheist Anthony Flew who died only last year that is so remarkable. Up until almost the end of his life Flew had been a staunch and vocal atheist having written several books and given numerous lectures on the subject as well as being chair of the British Secular Society for many years. Then in 2007 Flew published what would be his last book titled There is a God which carried the subtitle of How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind. In an interview he said this, SLIDE 14 ‘… with every passing year the more that was discovered about the richness and the inherent intelligence of life the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. If Richard Dawkins’ comical efforts in the God Delusion concerning the origin of life being attributed to lucky chance is the best argument that atheism has to offer then the game is over …’

The appendix to Flew’s book includes the transcript of a discussion with NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, in which Wright challenges Flew to think further. In reality Flew had moved from a position of atheism to a position of theism, the belief in some God rather than no God at all. But, says Wright, the clues in the universe points to a God who is knowable and relational, a God who stepped down into this world in order to restore and re-new His creation, a God who through the person and work of His own Son Jesus Christ brings purpose and life to a world ravaged by sin. Yet whether Anthony Flew reached that point of acceptance before his death only God knows.

And Jesus’ supremacy as the creative channel for His Father’s decision to create the world is nowhere better seen than in the opening chapter of Colossians. It’s another poetic work in fact, a similarly subversive work that sought to challenge the worldview of the culture of the time, that belief that Roman Caesars were gods. Paul sets out the full extent of the power and the majesty of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Let’s finish this morning by reading Paul’s words, inspired as they are by God’s Spirit. These words are a reminder of God’s purpose in creation and of God’s intent to restore His creation back to Himself. They speak of the Servant King and the one who will one day finish the work that was started way back in the beginning of the book of Genesis.

Listen to Paul’s words as we close … SLIDE 15

‘… the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross …’

Let’s pray

Just recently I was invited to preach on the relationship between science and faith and inevitably in discussions with individuals afterwards I was asked this question … Can I believe in both science and the Bible ?

In reply I gave the short answer to the question, which is yes, as many scientists who are Christians will tell you. However, the longer answer is more complicated ! Whether you think you can believe in both science and the Bible depends upon what you’re expecting to get from each of them. For example, where should we go for answers to questions as diverse as: Where does rain come from ? What is lightening ? Is there a God ?

So let’s start with the Bible. It is an ancient document produced over at least 1,000 years in many diverse settings, as well as being God’s word. The question is: what should we expect from the Bible, and how should we correctly read it ? The key thing is to consider the genre of the thing you are reading; in other words, what type of literature is this ? We all know about genre, but rarely realise it ! We read a letter from our bank manager differently to a letter from a spouse, because they are different genres. In the same way we read the poetry in Psalm 18 vs.2: ‘… the LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer …’, differently to Acts Ch.27 vs.29, ‘… fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight …’. The latter clearly refers to a physical rock which destroys a boat, the former means that God is like a rock to the Psalmist, ie. He is dependable, strong and solid. So genre matters when we read the Bible, otherwise we might mistake what the author was trying to say.

  • the importance of genre …

The genre of a text determines the kind of thing you should look to get from reading it. Let’s look at Genesis Ch.1, for example, which is the narrative of the seven-day creation (it may help you to go and read it before you carry on reading this post). What kind of literature is Genesis Ch.1 ? It’s a narrative, because things happen in it,  and it has some features of poetry as well: repeated phrases (for instance, ‘…and God said …’ and ‘… according to their kind …’, and many others), and a repeated structure in how each day is described. In Genesis Ch.1, many words and phrases are found three, seven or ten times; the introduction contains thirty-five words, earth is mentioned twenty-one times, God is mentioned thirty-five times (interestingly, all multiples of seven). All this suggests that the genre of Genesis Ch.1 is a mix of poetry and narrative, and that the author was very interested in the symbolism of numbers, as well as telling us something about God. Is this the kind of text which you would expect to get scientific information from? As Ernest Lucas says in his book Can we believe Genesis today (IVP, 2005): ‘… the more we look at Genesis Chs.1-3 … the more it becomes clear that the meaning of the passage is essentially theological, not historical or scientific …’ In other words, the point of Genesis Ch.1 is to tell us that God is the Creator of the universe, not exactly how (scientifically) God did it. The main point here is that the Bible is not a scientific document, it’s a theological one. We should go to the Bible to find out about God, not about science.

  • mechanisms and morals …

Now let’s turn to science. What should we expect science to tell us ? The aim of science is to explain how things happen in our world. Science is concerned about mechanisms – how does an earthquake occur for instance, or how does a cell turn cancerous ? Science is limited to studying repeatable, observable and measurable phenomena – and it’s very good at doing it ! However, the study of mechanisms is not all there is to life: we could describe in great scientific detail how butter, flour, sugar and eggs, when combined and heated, make a cake, but it would tell us nothing about what the cake was for – a birthday party, maybe. Similarly, we may think that it’s good to care for the poor and to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves but that’s not a scientific conclusion, it’s a moral one. Science isn’t everything and, more specifically, it certainly can’t tell us whether there is a God or not. God is not a mechanism within the universe, and therefore, quite rightly pure science leaves to one side the question of God and simply gets on with studying things within the world.

  • added meaning …

So science and the Bible are concerned with very different parts of life: science with how this world works, and the Bible with questions of meaning: why are we here ? Is there anything worth living for ? Is there a God ? As a Christian, science for me is about finding out how the world which God made works. Science is thinking God’s thoughts after him, but we cannot even begin to try and answer the question as to whether there is a God or not using science.

So can we believe in science and the Bible ? Yes ! In fact I think we need both. Let me finish with a quote from Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method, who died in 1626: ‘… let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s Word [the Bible] or in the book of God’s works [science] …’